What the Summit Did for Putin

  • Share
  • Read Later

Putin, right, speaks with Tony Blair, left, and Jacques Chirac at the G8 Summit

"You're a real hero to the Chinese!" exclaimed a Chinese journalist at President Vladimir Putin's farewell briefing to press gathered for the G8 summit in St. Petersburg. Putin smiled modestly to thundering applause from the audience. Earlier, he had told them, "We believe that the summit has been a success." And it may have been, at least for Putin's own image. The agenda had been eclipsed by the flare-up of violence in the Middle East, and the U.S. had at the last minute denied Putin his coveted prize of World Trade Organization membership for Russia. But basking in the nightly limelight of international media attention, Putin had stolen the show.

All the pomp and neo-imperial trappings of the three-day event he had hosted at the Konstantinovsky Palace, his sumptuous Maritime Residence in the St. Petersburg suburb of Strelna, could not camouflage embarrassing questions about the would-be world leader's decision-making. Putin insists that his engagement with Hamas, and his relationship with Iran and Syria, creates channels of communication that can help solve problems. At the G-8 summit, he made a great show of using these channels, pledging serious efforts to set free the Israeli soldiers captured by Hamas and Hizballah and help end missile attacks on Israel — conveniently avoiding the fact that Russia is the major supplier of missiles and related technology to Iran and Syria, who in turn supply Hizballah.

Putin's efforts to restore Russian influence in the Middle East is based on his ambition to restore Russia as a world power. Still, even though the crisis in that region dominated proceedings, the best the summit could produce on the crisis in the Middle East was an oblique statement, open to opposite interpretations. The U.S. and Britain see it as emphasizing Israel's right to self-defense against acts of aggression; for Russia, it emphasizes the call for Israel to show restraint. The irony of Putin lecturing the Israelis about proportionate response to terrorist provocations was not lost on the Chechens, hundreds of thousands of whom have suffered the effects of Putin's own brand of restraint.

The Mideast crisis did, however, help Putin deflect attention away from his WTO embarrassment. "The tension could be felt in the air even as Bush and Putin were giving their joint press conference," said a Russian diplomat, "all their show of camaraderie notwithstanding." The diplomat cited the WTO talks with the U.S. that had fallen flat the very same morning as the primary source of this sudden tension. "Instead of a long-promised reward, Putin got a slap," he said.

Russia had been obstructing U.S. requests on banking and insurance, hoping that by making some last-minute partial concessions, it would carry the day. Just before the Bush-Putin meeting, Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin had said that differences had been settled and a final WTO agreement would be reached at the G-8 summit. "Such tactics only show how little the Russian leaders understand of how America works," says Lilia Shevtsova, a political analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center. What Putin did not understand is that his U.S. counterpart cannot make such decisions without congressional support. "If the U.S. system worked the same way the Russian one does, Putin would have won," Shevtsova notes. "Now, he has lost — and he is frustrated and angry."

Still, the limelight, applause and belief that Russia's oil and natural gas wealth will restore its global standing may have taken the edge off Putin's sense of frustration. "Putin is obsessed with ending his presidency [his term formally ends in 2008] at the pinnacle of world glory, with ensuring his place in history," the Russian diplomat says. But he is not guided by a strategic vision. "There is only the vision of his grandeur, which is illusionary, and which is fraught with bad risks and dire consequences for Russia," the diplomat concludes.

The G8 summit produced little to show for Russia — or for the rest of the world, for that matter. But the spectacle and the attention may have done a lot for Vladimir Putin.